Race, class, and math thoughts

3 Sep

Yesterday a student walked into a friend’s graduate student office and asked us “Does STEM encourage apathy toward social justice and diversity issues, specifically the lack of black and brown bodies?”  A few things were notable about the ensuing discussion: first, no one was ever interrupted!  There were five of us in the room!  Apparently I have forgotten how to have civil conversations.  I was astonished by the fact that no one ever butted in, and respectfully allowed each person to say their full thoughts, with pauses and everything.  Does this happen in your life?  I think most of my interactions are at the pace of Gilmore Girls or a news channel than, y’know, respect and calm.  Also it was maybe the most diverse in-depth conversation on diversity I’ve been part of: a Chinese man, a Vietnamese woman (that’s me), a white woman, a black man, and a black woman from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

So that’s the context behind this post.  The question she posed was rather overly broad and poorly defined, but we hit on a lot of points that I thought were interesting and unrelated to each other.  Bring in the bullet points and mildly academic-sounding language!  We’re mostly considering the dearth of POC in math graduate school and professorship.

  • Local culture/society: higher education isn’t regarded as important in every culture.  Parents who don’t encourage their kids to go to college probably won’t understand a child’s desire to go to graduate school.  The example given here was: “do you play sports?  …no?  Oh.  Okay.”  In this person’s hometown, athletics are more important than scholarship.  How do you change a culture?  Should you try to change a culture?  It’s incredibly important to go into a community and listen/learn first, then try to launch programs/solutions.  Personal notes here: my family is very supportive and basically let me do whatever I want, but they still all balked a bit at my choice to pursue a Ph.D. in math.  They also wanted me to go to UCSD (which would’ve been free + given me money) instead of Yale (which cost money).  My first year of graduate school, I was on the phone with a Yale alum who, after I told him I was a grad student, said “you know you just cut your earnings by a third, right?”  So we’re all from different cultures that have different values.
  • Socioeconomic class: graduate school pays very little.  We hover securely above the poverty line (which in 2015 is just under 12k) with about 16-35k stipends (a small survey here), which are generally enough (barely, sometimes) for us to pay for our living expenses.  Plus you often have to pay fees back to the school; mine are about 1.6k per year (just under half a monthly paycheck, twice a year).  If your parents or siblings need help, or if you have children or other dependents, the stipend won’t be enough.  So if you have any of these thoughts in mind, it makes complete sense to not go to graduate school.  For more thoughts on this, check out this blog post about being an academic coming from a poverty background.  I’m astonished at my friends who have a kid on two grad student stipends.  Babies are so expensive!  My baby went to daycare three days a week and it cost almost exactly as much as I made per month.
  • Intervention programs: they work.  Reaching out to communities who haven’t heard of/thought of college/graduate school works.  There’s a sad dearth of funding for such programs (often run by private organizations), but they led to some of us being in that room.  Fun fact about me: I’m a Mellon Mays Fellow, which means I had a lot of encouragement as an undergraduate to go into academia.  MMUF is great.  Also so is Upward Bound.
  • Pipeline: it’s leaky.  See previous bullet point.
  • Math itself is very abstract.  In your day-to-day life, you won’t be confronted by social justice/diversity issues like you might be if you were in, say, anthropology or ethnic studies.  The field doesn’t lend itself to thinking about these sorts of things, so that could explain where that apathy stems from.  I haven’t had a ton of conversations with mathematicians about racial diversity (yesterday’s makes it two or so), but I have had a ton of conversations about gender diversity (and every mathematician knows about the AWM).  That said, I also did EDGE before starting grad school, and I just learned about SACNAS over the summer.  So there are people thinking about these things.

And because I can’t resist slipping women and math into any post, here’s a great little article about increasing the number of girls in math.  And by “girls” here we actually do mean “female children” (I’ve gotten pretty good at not calling women “girls” but I still say “you guys” a lot).

There were more points but that’s all I remember.  I think I’ll bake something next week, so look forward to that!  Last week for husband’s birthday I said “I baked you a surprise!” and he said “is it pavlova?” and the answer was yes.  Mini-pavlovas!  Just bake for half an hour instead of an hour.20150825_190236


7 Responses to “Race, class, and math thoughts”

  1. Kathy Dueno September 3, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    Great post. Great thoughts. Keep posting

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen December 8, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

    Two thoughts, both mostly irrelevant to your main points:

    About saying “you guys”: As far as I know, the linguistic consensus is that this is an emerging second-person plural pronoun among Americans who don’t say “y’all” or “youse”. In my personal experience, people seem to use it gender-neutrally even when they wouldn’t call an all-female group “guys” in other contexts.

    About the abstractness of math keeping people away from social justice: Here in Bolivia, where almost everyone is highly politicized (in a way that would be abnormal in the US outside of somewhere like a college campus) the mathematicians seem to be very much on the sidelines. I asked a professor about it, and in addition to the abstractness he also blamed the unnecessary-ness (unnecessity?) of the field. The engineers and doctors and such can go out and protest and be relatively certain of employment when they finish. Whereas if the mathematicians stir up too much trouble, the government might say “Wait, why are we paying you guys to do math all day when we need money to build infrastructure and fight poverty? Go do something useful!” and they’d all be out of a job.

    I’m not sure how much this applies in the US, where mathematics is much more established, and the universities probably couldn’t get away with closing their math departments. But I wonder if, say, DARPA or the NSF would turn on math faster than other fields if we started getting uppity.

    • yenergy December 14, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

      Math has been pretty useful to the NSA/government, and we also cost like nothing compared to the science/engineering departments. Not a university administrator here, but seems like math is as cheap as any of the humanities departments a la Medieval Studies or Classics etc. In terms of NSF, again, math grants seem a lot smaller than any of the science ones that ask for equipment. Plus no one understands what our grants say anyway; mathematicians enjoy epistemic privilege (I’m looking for a reference for you but I keep running into feminist epistemology and math instead oops). Very curious, these apolitical Bolivian mathematicians.

      I agree that “you guys” is gender neutral, but it’s a teeny tiny way that we make the masculine normative in daily conversation, and personally I’d like to avoid that. Luckily I moved to Texas and my “y’all”ing has never been better! {That may not have been the grammatically correct way to use “normative” but I hope my meaning has been conveyed}

      • Anschel Schaffer-Cohen December 16, 2015 at 3:14 am #

        I wish I spoke a dialect that included y’all. I use it in writing sometimes but it doesn’t really feel right to say.

        You seem to agree with me in putting math in the humanities category; but the funding comes from the NSF rather than the NEF, which I find a bit weird. My guess would be that a literature teacher here would say the same as the math teachers though.

  3. Piper December 13, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    it’s also hard to imagine yourself being or doing something without readily available role models that represent you. if you identify with a group that is present in field A but entirely missing from field B, it’s a lot less likely you’ll consider trying out field B. clearly it’s not for you. even if it could’ve been.

    • yenergy December 14, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      Thanks for swinging by, Piper! Totally agree with lack of role models being a huge factor here, and should be part of the pipeline discussion. Even with great programs like EDGE and MMUF, we can see by the recent uproar at American universities that diversity in faculty is still sorely sorely lacking and behind. Thank goodness for students and protests; we’ll see if all these new diversity initiatives actually lead to real, supported hires and fixing that pipeline.

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